Transcendence: My Journey in Starfish International

Fatoumatta Jaiteh
By: Fatoumatta Jaiteh 
So, I have been running away from doing this write-up because I knew it would take me through a rollercoaster of emotions. With every sentence, I paused, breathed, gently pushed down the lump forming in my throat, and wrote on. My story is not one that has never been heard from someone else before. However, I don’t know many teens and young adults who have faced life like I have. This snippet of my journey in life, and especially the role Starfish International has played in it is to just remind you of how great an impact we can make when girls are given a chance in education.
My earliest memory of school was in Nursery 3 (Kindergarten), and I attended Lamin Babylon Nursery School as one of the smallest kids. The adjective ‘small’ always accompanied me because people would gasp when they heard me speak English eloquently despite my size and age. I have had a passion for education since then, especially because it was during a time when my father was still on the fence about Western Education.
Celebrating her success
Throughout elementary school, I pushed for more opportunities and motivated myself. I remember an excursion organized by St. Peter’s Primary School in 2006, and every sixth grader was to go. However, my dad could not make the connection between having an education in a classroom and going on a trip elsewhere. So, he did not give me the funds I needed to go. I decided to piggy bank all the lunch money he was giving me and paid for the trip myself! When I went to him and said I had paid the excursion fees from my lunch money, the man was horrified. I remember him looking at me intensely and saying ‘okay, you can go’.
I think that day marked the beginning of my dad’s respect for me because he could see how hungry I was for knowledge and the extent I would go to, to be educated.
At the beginning of Middle School, some of my family members started dropping out of school. The reasons were mostly tied to financial constraints and early marriage. I also saw a couple of my friends in the community delayed in their education because of teenage pregnancy. I started to understand the value of my education even more and would sit with my mum to ask her about her story and why she dropped out of school.
My mum was pulled out of school for marriage at the age 15, and having lost her own mum at the age of 7, she had nobody to fight for her education. When I joined Starfish International in the 9th grade, I started believing that my narrative could be different from my mum’s, my cousins’ and all the other girls who couldn’t further their education because of the socio-economic challenges they had faced.
I was one of the girls who started with Aunty Yassin (Mam Yassin Sarr-Co founder and director) under the trees in St. Peter’s in 2009. Whilst Starfish came with a different model of offering scholarships (one had to start and maintain a small business and give back through service to the community), its model challenged me to face the mirror and to understand my reality. The fact was that my parents would not have been able to afford university fees for me, I needed to find my voice and use it to advocate for myself, and I had to build all the skills I would need to get a career that would uplift my family and community.
Starfish Leadership Graduation 2021
I looked at Aunty Yassin and listened to her story, and that laid the foundation for my commitment as a Starfish student, no matter what anyone said. The struggles I was going through, only I knew and felt. Being academically excellent was not going to be enough for the mountains I wanted to move. And so, that was how Fatoumata Jaiteh, the girl who refused to quit, was born.
There are people who call me “Starfish” in the community of Lamin because I have been with the organization for so long (13 yrs). I started as a student, then a mentor, got promoted to running Operations, then directing and stepping in for the Co-founders as the Assistant Director, and I now currently work as the Director of Development. I served at Starfish in these capacities whilst the organization paid for my undergraduate studies at the University of The Gambia, but the main reason I chose Starfish when I could have been anywhere else was because I knew it was doing THE WORK without a pinch of corruption. There was really no other place for me, where I could be immensely impacted and in return, make a sustainable impact while still very young. At just 28, I have mentored over 900 students, trained over 40 mentors and worked with upwards of 100 volunteers from all over the world. I wasn’t being paid in ways that enabled me to send my parents on pilgrimage to Mecca or buy them cars, but I was being invested in such that I was able to mold hundreds of girls who would otherwise never be able to graduate from high school, escape early and sometimes abusive marriages, and uplift their communities as they uplift their immediate families.
My mother would call my story a success story. Aunty Yassin already believes in me as a success story, and my younger sister now calls herself Fatou Y. officially (lol). However, I am not sure that I consider myself a success story yet because I feel like I have so much more to do. But, I can and should definitely thank God for how far I have come. The village my parents come from is called Niani Sukuta in C.R.R (The Central River Region of The Gambia), and they still do not have a middle and high school yet. I have been frequently visiting my village these past three years, and I have started a Starfish Chapter there. The stories of my aunts, cousins, the village girls and women, keep me on my feet. I worked at one of Starfish’s partner High Schools this past year, in the United States, and had the opportunity to also do professional development training centered around equity and identity. I have gotten so much more out of my service at Starfish International than I have given. With all that I have gained and given, I know I can thrive anywhere, speak on any global issue, research and access information, make well informed choices and make sure my younger siblings equally get an education (well, after several meetings with my father, this one is finally being accomplished).
Fatoumatta as a young student at St. Peters
In a month, I will be starting school at Brandeis University in Massachusetts (U.S) as a Master’s student in Sustainable International Development. As I embark on this anticipated chapter of my life, I define myself as indicated by the title of the second poem I ever wrote, “A Million Spirits in One Body”: the pleas of the local people I met during all the community assessments I did, the cries of all the babies in my country who have lost their mothers due to maternal mortality, the tears of all the students and mentees I homevisted, and the hope of my mother, who, despite being a child bride, offered her shoulders for me and my siblings to soar from. I know I am getting this education to serve mankind and wherever I call home. I am sincerely grateful to my mothers (Adama Kijera and Mam Yassin Sarr), my father figure (David Fox), my biological father (Yahya Jaiteh, the fire to my iron), my Uncle (Saja Kijera), my Natick Family (Tara McDonald, Brian Harrigan and Laura Harrigan), my sisters (Isatou Jaiteh, Wuday Jaiteh and Manyima Sarr), different generations of mentors I have worked with at Starfish International, my mentees and students at Starfish International, and phenomenal community members, guests and volunteers whose paths I have crossed over the past 13 years.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here